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February 23, 2006

Book Notes - Simon Reynolds ("Rip It Up and Start Again")

I've been reading Simon Reynolds' music blog, Blissblog for several years, but hadn't read any of his books until Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984. In this tome of music history, Reynolds captures the post-punk period with his personal flair, enthusiastically elaborating on bands like PiL and Joy Division while never losing focus on the bigger picture. The best music book I have read in years, I will be recommending Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984 to friends too young to remember the beginning of the postpunk era and to older music fans alike.

Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984 officially hits bookstores March 7th, check out the book's website.

In his own words, here is Simon Reynolds' "book notes" playlist for his book, Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984:

1/ Sex Pistols, “Bodies” (Never Mind the Bollocks, 1977)

Well, without punk, there’d be no postpunk, right? And it was the Sex Pistols (specifically this song and “Anarchy in the UK”) that first snagged me off whatever path I was on aged fourteen and into the world of taking-music-too-seriously. Mainly, because I’d never heard anything that sounded so deadly serious before. Not so much anti-abortion as a protest against life, “Bodies” is a song that reminds you that a big part of punk’s appeal was its pure wanton evil--destruction for destruction’s sake. Almost orchestral in its grandeur (those huge backing vocal chants), “Bodies” sounds appalling and glorious. In Rip It Up and Start Again, part of my rhetorical pitch is challenging punk’s inflated historical status and bigging up “the aftermath”. This involved criticizing punk rock as a backward step, a return to basic rock’n’roll. Which is true for much of it, but the best punk was actually the distillation of rock into something that hadn’t, actually, been heard before. You go back a few years before Buzzcocks and X-Ray Spex, and really there’s nothing that has that monolithic blam-blam-blam-blam feel, even the heaviest metal or hardest-pounding Stooges had more swing to it. Still, there was a sense in which, once punk had staged this reductionist process, it couldn’t be taken anywhere, it could only be repeated with diminishing returns. Hence postpunk’s drive to expand and experiment.

2/ Public Image Ltd, “Death Disco” (single, 1979)

A protest against death: John Lydon singing (although that word seems inaccurate and inadequate for the harrowing noise unleashed here) about watching the light go out in his mother eyes. As much as the sound of the single, which made the Top 20 in Britain, what was life-changing for many, me included, was the matter/anti-matter collision of “death” and “disco” in the title. Disco, subverted by content too heavy and dark for the brightly lit celebration of the dancefloor; “death” (rock’s seriousness, its grappling with “the human condition”) subverted by disco’s hedonism and levity. Ian Dury & The Blockheads--another of my favorites back then--did something similar, albeit in a more accessible and conventionally musical way: “My Old Man” (on New Boots and Panties) was a poignant reminiscence of Dury’s own dead dad over taut funk, while “Dance of the Screamers” (from Do It Yourself) turned disco into primal scream therapy for the interpersonally challenged.

3/ Talking Heads, “Seen and Not Seen” (Remain In Light, 1980)

I got PiL’s Metal Box for Christmas 1979, and Remain In Light for Xmas the following year. I remember spending Christmas morning lying on the carpet in our living room as close to the speakers as I could get, lost in its jungle of glittering texture-rhythm. “Seen and Not Seen,” the least groove-oriented track, is actually my favorite song on the record, though. Although I didn’t realize this at the time, it’s one that bears a really heavy Eno imprint in terms of its near-ambient atmosphere, the way the synths glint and waver like heat-haze rising over a sun-baked highway. It’s similar to the “4th World” music Eno was making around this time with Jon Hassell. I love the lyric--the story of a man who learns how to change his facial appearance by gradual exercise of will, only to realise that he’s made a terrible mistake halfway through the metamorphosis--and the hesitant cadences of Byrne’s spoken delivery. People typically have a fairly limited idea of what postpunk was about--angular, stark, punk-funk, angsty--but there was a whole other side to the music that was ethereal, dreamy-drifty, and gorgeously textured, and “Seen and Not Seen” is an exquisite example. I wanted to get the track for the Rip It Up compilation, which is coming out this spring and showcases the atmospheric, blissy-eerie side of postpunk, but we couldn’t get the rights.

4/ Scritti Politti, “PAs” (from 4 A Sides EP, 1979)

There was just something really mysterious and intriguing about Scritti Politti. Somehow I’d got wind of the idea of them as this fabulously uncompromising outfit skulking in the margins of the UK postpunk scene and operating at some outer limit of politics-in-pop. I guess that was their reputation, their image, their glamour in a way, and it made them both attractive and vaguely intimidating, like a challenge that you ought to put yourself through. And then when I actually heard Scritti for the first time--it would have been “Bibbly-O-Tek,” also from 4 A Sides, on John Peel’s radio show--I was struck both by how unusual it was (the fractured song-structures, the odd chord-changes) but also how instantly beguiling the song was (the sweetness of Green’s voice, the sheer melodic beauty--which came, I realized many years later, from his childhood love of the Beatles). There was a loveliness that I completely had not expected. And when I got 4 A Sides, and the two other early EPs, I gradually became convinced Green was a pop genius. All this was well before he’d made his big turnabout and decided to go “pop” with “The ‘Sweetest Girl’”. I was such a fan that I nearly wrote him a letter telling him that he should just forget all the Scritti ideology about avoiding musical conventions and just go for it, that pop stardom was his destiny. It was “PAs,” this fantastic funk groove with a gorgeously insinuating and serpentile melody, that really sold me on this idea. This would have been the summer of 1980, when Green actually was holed up in a Welsh cottage ruminating over his musical future. But as much as it was great when he did go pop, first with the lover’s rock reggae of “Sweetest Girl” and then with the electrofunk hits like “Wood Beez,” “Absolute” and “Perfect Way”, part of me wishes he stuck with his original band and just kept on making things like “PAs” for ever.

5/ Tenor Saw, “Ring the Alarm”, 1985

I wanted to include something to register the extent to which postpunk depended for its very being on the amazing black music of this late Seventies and early Eighties--funk and disco, reggae and electro. This tune is from just outside the period Rip It Up covers, but, well, I’ve been listening to it a lot this week, and it seems as good an emblem as any for the massive effect Jamaican music had on UK postpunk. I played it yesterday and had one of those moments. It’s a midtempo skank, sweetly sung, but it hit me with the impact of The Stooges; the tension in the rhythm suddenly had this quality of tectonic violence. The line in this song that always slays me, makes my head spin, is “sweet reggae music ‘pon the attack”. If you think about what the song is actually about, it’s grim--the market struggle of sound system against sound system (“ring the alarm, another sound is dying”). It’s pitiless, Hobbesian, and yet there is such exultation in the song, same as in “War in A Babylon” by Max Romeo, another tune I’ve been playing recently.

6/ La Dusseldorf, “Dusseldorf” (La Dusseldorf, 1976)

Not strictly postpunk; indeed this album--the brainchild of Klaus Dinger of Neu!-- was recorded in 1975, making it pre-punk. But I’m including it A/ because I’ve been listening to it incessantly, and B/ David Bowie cited this album, along with Neu 75, as a huge influence on Low, which in turn was a massive LP for the postpunk bands. La Dusseldorf could therefore be seen as the Source in terms of the Neu Europa vibe that swept through so much postpunk, from Simple Minds’ Empires and Dance to The Associates (“White Car in Germany,” et al). There’s this clear-headed atmosphere of nobility and splendor to “Dusseldorf”, panoramic vistas reeling by as you head at speed into a world that’s cleansed and newborn. You get a tiny foretaste too of the glisten and uplift of early U2 and Echo & The Bunnymen, the postpunk breed of bands I call “glory boys” in Rip It Up. In Neu!, Dinger was one of the great rock drummers, he invented the motorik beat, this amazing combination of caveman primitivism and ever-shifting subtlety, a white version of Amiri Baraka’s “changing same.” One of the cool things about La Dusseldorf is that, in what seems like an act of supreme perversity, Dinger handed over the drum kit to his brother Thomas, who then proved to be just as good as Klaus. The latter, meanwhile, took up guitar and almost out-dazzled Neu! guitarist Michael Rother. I think he was trying to prove a point, that he was the real mastermind in Neu! Lyrically, “Dusseldorf” is wonderfully inane, just a chant of the city’s name, a one-word anthem of civic patriotism; sonically it’s 13 minutes of rolling motorik majesty, something I could happily listen to for fives times that length.

see also:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)

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